In Young-ha Kim’s I Hear Your Voice, translated by Krys Lee and published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the narrator, Donggyu, and his friend Jae grow up on the streets of Seoul and seek friendship, power, and a means of survival in the city’s underground motorcycle gang.
That April, in the full bloom of cherry blossoms, we raced over the scattered petals under the streetlights. At the time, it was just the three of us, Jae, me, and Mokran.
While eating ice cream under a cherry blossom tree, I said to Jae, “That smell, I can smell it on you.”
“You know, Mama Pig’s hostess club. The waiters’ lounge.”
In other words, the smell of poverty—the stink of fish coming from young men sharing a room.
“As if you don’t smell,” said Mokran. She started the engine. “Let’s hit the road.”
Jae and Mokran sped across the bank of the Han River, falling back then moving ahead of each other. They rode gently then forcefully, like a veteran ice-dancing couple gliding across the rink. I wedged myself between them, but they quickly became one again.
Though Jae had started riding later than we had, he was the fastest. Mokran didn’t like motorcycles for what they were; for her, they were merely a way to socialize. Since Taeju, her ex, had essentially lived on one, she learned to ride to be with him. I wasn’t skilled, but I thrived on pure speed. According to Jae, I had an aggressive driving style. But Jae, he literally became one with his motorcycle. At a certain point while racing ahead of us, he’d forget our very existence.
When Mokran mentioned this, Jae nodded. “You’re right. That’s exactly it. It’s hard to explain. But the bike and I becoming one—well—it’s not really that. My mind begins permeating the bike. Inside it, I think, look out at the world, and keep moving.”
Jae told us about mysterious experiences he’d started having while in solitary confinement, but we didn’t really believe him. We just assumed they were moments when he’d gone a bit mad. This was a little before Jae displayed the kind of masterful driving skills that he would soon show us. He was beginning to develop a driving style of his own, which was bold and elegant, and the biker groups had started to notice.
He asked us, “Have you ever been to the beach?”
I knew for sure that Jae had never been to the beach. The word “vacation” didn’t exist in Mama Pig’s vocabulary.
“What about you?” Mokran asked.
“Jeongeun said we should come over,” he said.
Jeongeun used to hang out with Jae until he broke his leg while delivering pizza on a rainy day. With the “thirty-minute promise of delivery” or whatever they call it, pizza delivery had turned into a life-or-death race against time. Only some time after his accident did Jeongeun finally tell everyone that he was staying in a village near the West Sea. He could no longer support himself, so he had returned to the seaside where his grandmother lived.
Mokran settled onto the bike seat. “Why not take off and go now?”
“This late at night?” I asked.
Mokran insisted. “Why not? We can drive up again in the morning. Only two hours and we’ll be there.”
The three of us took a local road. Freight trucks, steered by drivers on stimulants to stay awake, stumbled over the centerline. We ignored traffic lights and raced southwest, and only when we reached the bridge connecting the mainland to the island did we turn off our ignition switches and cool the engines. The black sea was glossy and gleamed under the streetlights, and Mokran’s long hair fluttered in the wind. I liked looking at her; it was as if she had been created from all the good things of the world. Our eyes kept meeting; she knew that I was watching her.
Jae said, “It’s the ocean!” He began running toward it and threw himself into the water. Mokran followed.
“Oh, my shoes, my shoes!” he said. His slipper had come off while he was wading.
The water was cold and the ocean at night was inky black, desolation itself, but we laughed and shoved each other. We hunted for Jae’s slipper while splashing and having water fights. Finally Mokran raised the slipper high above her head, like a trophy, and said, “I found it!”
Jae swung an arm over Mokran’s shoulder and suddenly kissed her on the cheek. I walked along the dark beach. Jae, now out of the water, lit a cigarette as I watched Mokran.
I heard an engine approaching from the distance. It was Jeongeun’s younger brother, who was only fourteen and already riding a 500cc scooter. “It’s common in the country,” he told us.
We followed him down a rural road. A chill I hadn’t felt before when at the beach tightened around me. Jeongeun’s grandmother, an early riser, was already up. She looked indifferently at us as if we were local mutts passing through. She seemed like a person who had long ago quit making judgments about the world. Jeongeun then emerged sleepily on crutches. After he’d affectionately greeted and cursed Jae, he welcomed Mokran and me. We had warm water a few minutes after the boiler was turned on, so we took turns showering, starting with Mokran.
Early the next morning, we had the breakfast that Jeongeun’s grandmother prepared and headed out to the sea again. We went down a road cut into a hill until we were suddenly faced with the vast ocean. Jae was briefly reduced to silence. Mokran and Jeongeun, and me seated behind Jae, stayed quiet. We turned the engines off and stopped talking, and forgot about one another.
Finally Jae spoke. “There’s nothing here.”
Mokran, who every summer had visited several beaches within the country and beyond, said, “What else is there in the ocean except the ocean?”
As if defending the ocean, Jeongeun replied, “Well, it’s not high season yet. And there’s a ton of stuff in the ocean. The clams alone . . .”
But Jae had immediately perceived the ocean’s strangeness. The ocean was the vastness of nothing. He thought of a past when he had not existed and the future when he wouldn’t exist, and felt something close to terror. It was as if cosmic time, without beginning or end, had been transformed into the ocean and appeared in front of him.
© 2012 Young-ha Kim. Translation © 2017 Krys Lee. Excerpt by agreement with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.